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masks vs. respirators (again)

A friend posted this unrolled thread to her Facebook page yesterday. Essentially, the thread explains some of the physics behind different types of face coverings and how they work, or in some cases don't work, to trap viruses, pollutants, and various other kinds of airborne contaminants. There is nothing particularly revolutionary in the thread –– it would be weird, at this point, if there were –– but it is clear and succinct and evidence-based; it focuses on the basic engineering of airflow and suspended particulates, rather than on exhortations to wear or not to wear a mask (of whatever kind).

I've always been rather fascinated by physics, so I like reading about things like Brownian motion for their own sake. That won't describe every reader! But I think most of us could benefit from a good basic understanding of how filtration works (there's more to it than there is to your coffee filter, for instance) –– and not just for Covid or RSV but for the several kinds of sub-2.5micron particles that have become hard to avoid in many areas (including, at some times of year, the Tennessee Valley).

The political dimensions that have accrued to conversations about mask-wearing don't really serve any of us well. But people once did the same kind of grandstanding about their freedom, and enacted the same kind of performative sanctimony, about wearing seat belts –– and although I have definitely met my share of outliers, for the most part we've internalized the basic information that seat belts are a good way to reduce your chances of serious injury in an accident, and relatively few people, in my experience, feel a need either to prove they aren't afraid of oncoming vehicles or to turn a basic daily safety measure into the occasion for a soliloquy.

I have a dizzying array of chronic health problems that never quite stop giving me trouble (hence the "chronic"), but the level of trouble they give me varies pretty widely. Most of them give me significantly more trouble when my immune system has been kicked into high gear ... which means I have a lot of incentive for keeping that thing chilled out.

My world is a better place when people are at the very least less dramatic about their non-masking, or less determined to get my face bare (listen, my face is not that great anyway; really, I see it every day, you're fine without that view). Ergo, I have some stake in seeing masking normalized –– which it has been for decades, in some parts of the world (East Asia) and has rapidly become in some parts of Europe and the U.S. (my friend in San Diego sees masks daily; I go months without seeing any but my own). I also suspect that other people who might benefit from masking under certain circumstances (in crowds, for instance, or during periods of high pollution) would be more likely to take advantage of the equipment, and get more use out of the equipment they use (see the link in my first paragraph regarding the importance of fit), if they had a better selection of masks to choose from.

Here are a few I've tried and found comfortable on my (small, somewhat craggy) face; most are available in different sizes, so the key feature all these have in common is not so much the size as the moldability: These are masks that stayed on relatively well, without gapping widely at my nose bridge and the hollows of my cheeks, even when moving around and speaking (e.g., running, teaching a class).

Instagram post features TWO masks, actually; the white one you see in the cover image is the SoftSeal VFold N95, with valve; you can get size M or L at Home Depot, but I actually wear the size S, designed for children (apparently my face is tiny), which I ordered directly from the SoftSeal company. The very dark mask you see a few clips later is the Cambridge Mask Admiral Pro; I ordered a pair of these in August 2021 and loved them so much I ordered one for JB and a second set for myself in March 2022. On my fave, the Small is a bit too narrow width-wise and tugs on my ears (I used a mask strap to alleviate that problem with the Small) but otherwise fits nicely even without a foam insert along the nose bridge; the Medium fits me more or less like a sack, and definitely needs the foam insert, but the adjustable toggles are an enormous help in pulling it to my chin. The Medium is the one I am wearing in the clip.

Be advised that with enough months of rough handling (I washed mine in the washing machine almost weekly; I think the manufacturer suggests hand-washing and less often, but neither of those was going to happen) the valve on the CM will eventually detach from its moorings. At that point of course the mask is no good (if the valve is flapping open, the air you suck in that way is not getting filtered) ... but it took nearly a year of VERY heavy usage for my 2021 purchases to get there. The company does also make a valve-free version, which I have not tried. The Cambridge Mask Admiral and its companion, the Churchill (navy and black, respectively) were my favorite masks for RUNNING for over a year; recently I've been using some of the disposables I'm about to show you, but essentially I have lots of good things to say about the CM and plan to re-order again, primarily for outdoor use.

Then this do-dad is another SoftSeal, but in this case it's the 360. Like the VFold, you can also get this one at Home Depot; unlike the Vfold, it does not come in a size Small. I tried, but cannot wear, the valved version; the mask is so much too long for my face that the valve, which is supposed to sit basically at mouth-level, sits all the way UNDER my chin and digs its edges into the most prominent part of my face (which would, in fact, be the point of my chin). SoftSeal offers a fitting guide, on which for some reason the 360 is not listed; at just about 90 mm bridge-to-chin I am "between sizes" for the Vfold; I tried the M and it dangled by about a centimeter. I was not able to make that one work, BUT for the 360 there is a workaround!


With the valve-free version of the 360, I get around the length problem by snugging the bottom strap waaaaaay back and letting the silicone seal (the 360-degree silicone seal that gives the mask its name is also the main reason for choosing this mask over some other N95) sit flush with the underside of my jaw. If I'm going to be teaching, I also put a little silly putty at the nose bridge and tighten the bottom with a small strip of medical tape, just for security (I move around a lot when I'm teaching, okay??).

SoftSeal360 w/o valve, tucked for my tiny face

You wouldn't think all of this rigging would work, but as long as the filter media cover nose and mouth and the silicone seal is flush against the skin all the way around, then the secret is that it doesn't really matter whether that printed stuff you can see in the photo was supposed to fit a "normal" person in front of their nose. My nose is covered, and there are no gaps, and that's what counts!


I also have to give a shoutout to this elastomeric respirator, from MSA; it's the best fit and most comfortable of the elastomerics I have tried. It does get kind of heavy after teaching a full day of classes (I taught roughly 9am-7pm this semester; it's hard for anything to stay comfortable for that long). I have been wearing the SS360 to teach since roughly mid-October, but I still use the MSA for going out and about on errands, etc.

The filter cartridges are interchangeable; mine are P100s, but I don't feel the fit is significantly more secure than the SS360 and the 360 is lighter to wear for long periods (also easier to talk through, which becomes an issue if you are giving back-to-back lectures because the MSA does require you to do a lot of projecting from the diaphragm; not impossible but demanding).

My MSA came from Amazon, but I spent a LOT of time verifying that the Amazon seller was actually the MSA company; in my case, that was because I needed expedited shipping; if you have the ability to plan ahead a little, I would suggest going directly through MSA. I am wearing the two-piece neckstrap, in the size Small, and I have tried out two different sets of P100 filter cartridges (I ended up preferring a set of round ones, not pictured here ... not so much for anything about their breathability as because I was prone to turning around way too fast and whacking the pink ones into things –– did I mention I move around a lot??).


The CMs regularly feature a BOGO50% offer on their "standard" colors (I had one of their snazzier prints and fwiw I found that the fabric just didn't sit as well on my face); SoftSeal pickup/shipping for the sizes available in retail would probably be faster from Home Depot or Lowe's than from the company website, but ordering from the website is also slightly cheaper, especially if you are ordering in substantial qualities. The Vfolds come in packs of three masks each. The 360 is available solo (I got a single to try, the first time, and that's how I discovered the valve-digging problem) and in packs of 10.

Good luck –– and let me know if you have any recent favorites in the category of protective gear!

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